UPDATE – For its failure to comply with safety, South Africa’s Civil Aviation Authority has come hard on Comair’s operations by indefinitely grounding the entire carrier’s fleet. Thousands of passengers were left stranded and irate after the aviation regulator issued a 24-hour precautionary suspension of Comair’s air operator certificate on Saturday morning. The move came after a series of serious incidents involving its aircraft. South Africa’s Comair and Kulula grounded over safety issues.

SACAA said the suspension would remain effective pending the operator addressing issues it had flagged.

Comair Limited is an airline based in South Africa that operates scheduled services on domestic routes as a British Airways franchisee and an affiliate member of the Oneworld airline alliance. It also operates as a low-cost carrier under its own kulula.com brand. Its main base is OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg, and it has focus cities at Cape Town International Airport, and King Shaka International Airport.

A Kulula-flight was forced last week to divert to OR Tambo from nearby Lanseria after an ‘engine-relate issue. This was the second of such issues in three weeks on the same route. 

Swift response

The SACAA said it recognized efforts by Comair to address the issues which had been raised as speedily as possible. In this regard, the operator had started responding to the regulator from Saturday evening. 

A spokesperson for the South African Civil Aviation Authority said the inspectorate team worked through the night to review the evidence received. At 6.30 am on March 13, the regulator accepted the corrective action and evidence submitted in respect of one level 1 finding. “This, therefore, means this finding is now closed. The review of the rest of the evidence of which the latest was received around 7:30 am [Sunday] morning, will continue to be assessed and reviewed by the inspectorate this morning.” 

Huge blow for Comair 

The suspension came after the SACAA visited Comair to determine the cause of “a spate of occurrences” affecting a number of Kulula.com and British Airways flights. SACAA sought to confirm Comair’s compliance with applicable civil aviation regulations (CARs). The inspection was also aimed at reviewing Comair’s quality control management system (QC) and safety management systems (SMS) to establish compliance related to reporting, analysis, and follow-up on occurrences, and corrective action plans to prevent a recurrence.

This resulted in the regulator raising three level 1 finding, and one level 2 finding. In terms of the oversight philosophy of SACAA, a level 1 finding is an outcome that poses an immediate risk to safety and security, and it must be closed with immediate effect. A level 2 finding must be closed within seven days.

In a media statement on Sunday afternoon, Comair said it was unable to confirm when it will fly again. CEO Glenn Orsmond said that his airline had provided all information requested by the SACAA: “We have since received an acknowledgment that the information has been received, but no other formal communication has been received to date. In the interim, the CAA has issued a press release saying it will be reviewing and assessing the documents provided.” Orsmond said that the grounding of Comair “is a huge blow to our customers, employees and the flying public as it effectively takes forty percent of the capacity out of the market. The implications for the aviation sector and the country are considerable should the suspension continue for any length of time.”

Preventing air disaster

SACAA said it was fully committed to ensuring that Comair was back in the air and had dedicated a full team to assess and review the evidence as it gets submitted. According to the regulatory body, the commitment to safety, in this case, supersedes any other need and this was to ensure that SA maintains its safety record of having zero fatal airline accidents in over thirty years on South African soil. “The lives of our aviation personnel and the users of civil aviation services is paramount, and it is a responsibility the regulator does not take lightly,” said the SACAA.

South Africa is periodically subjected to independent international audits by bodies such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to measure the country’s compliance to the standards and recommended practices of the UN body. The nation’s aviation sector was last audited by ICAO in 2018 in terms of the Universal Safety Oversight Audit Program — Continuous Monitoring Approach and the country improved its compliance levels in that audit.

UPDATE MARCH 16: SACAA said on March 16 that it had uplifted the AOC for both Comair and Kulula. In a statement, the agency said:  “The Regulator sought to confirm Comair’s compliance with applicable Civil Aviation Regulations (CARs). The inspection was also aimed at reviewing Comair’s safety management systems (SMS) and quality control management system (QA) to establish compliance related to the reporting, analysis, and follow-up on occurrences, and corrective action plans to prevent a recurrence. This brings to an end a five-day-long suspension of the AOC which was imposed by the Regulator from 12 March 2022.”

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